In 2003, Carole Rothman, the artistic director of the Second Stage Theater, predicted that “in two years, there may be a bunch of women on Broadway.” That was not an empty prediction: contemporary American playwriting is full of strong female voices that are tackling powerful themes in plays filled with quirky edges, silences, abstractions, even surrealism. Since the accomplished dramas of such trailblazers as Maria Irene Fornes (85), Caryl Churchill (77), Paula Vogel (age 65), Teressa Rebeck (age 58) and the late Wendy Wasserstein (among many others) have come plays by Yasmina Reza (56 – Art, God Of Carnage) Suzan-Lori Parks (52 – Top Dog/Underdog, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World), Lynn Nottage (51 – Intimate Apparel, Ruined), the prolific Sara Ruhl (42 – Dead Man’s Cell Phone, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, Stage Kiss), and the wondrous Annie Baker (35 – The Vermont Plays, The Flick). And these are just the names of a few of the females whose work has been produced the most often.
Two plays by a new young playwright, Anne Washburn, were recently staged in Boston and New York (Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play at the Lyric Stage Company and Antlia Pneumatica at Playwrights Horizon). Curious, I attended both in consecutive weeks. As with many of Washburn’s female contemporaries, these plays break with traditional playwriting strictures: they experiment with how stories are told as well as how they shape personal and collective memory. The earlier play, Mr. Burns, is the stranger of the two and has been reviewed in The Arts Fuse. At times the script is a clever send-up of our post-modern culture; it critiques our obsession with referencing and appropriation, looking at how it leads to the trivialization of memory and undercuts the value of storytelling. But as a piece of theater it drags, badly — the show’s songs without melody and masks and costumes (at least in the Lyric Stage production) are so unpleasant that it became a challenge to sit still. Perhaps the New York production, which received rave reviews, located the play’s magic.
Washburn’s newest play, Antlia Pneumatica, has just closed in New York. In it, old college pals reunite for the funeral of a mutual friend at a ranch in Texas. The stage set is a kitchen island where great quantities of food are being prepared. Darkness descends, stars twinkle – and there is lots of talk, more and more talk, the emphasis on the conversation between two aging lovers philosophizing about romance and memory, devising their own meaning for the little known constellation Antlia Pneumatica. In the darkness we also hear the voices of kids being told stories by their parents, one involving the life and death struggles of an ant. The local and cosmic, the minuscule and the gigantic – this is Washburn’s territory (as it was Thornton Wilder’s). This time around she is exploring these themes in the context of old friendships, familiar bonds, and how we come to know ourselves. The play reminds one of the famous Faulkner quote: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
The house where the characters gather is owned by Nina (Annie Parisse) who has a sister, Liz (April Matthis). Nina is white, Liz is black. We don’t know why that is, though it turns out not to be particularly necessary to know the background details. What we do know about each of them is told through stories or reminiscences. Len (Nat Dewolf) is gay and Ula (Maria Striar) is a grouch. Nina has a rebellious ex-boyfriend, Adrian (Rob Campbell), who inexplicably has been invited — but it turns out that he may or may not actually exist. Is he a ghost, an impostor, a fabric of the group’s collective imagination? Ironically, this ‘phantom’ character was easily the most likeable and interesting of Washburn’s spoiled crew of endlessly yacking friends. We have to wait for wrap-up revelations at the end to finally get a character, named Bama (Crystal Finn), who really livens up the proceedings.
Long stretches of the evening ask the audience to listen to annoying children’s voices in the dark. In the program, the playwright argues we need to pay more attention to sound in the theater: “Sound is kind of huge in this play, which I think must have something to do with the fact that it was written on a silent playwriting retreat. Where there was no speech, suddenly my text was full of sound.” This lyrical notion could have sparked a compelling play: the hypnotic nature of pure sound, the mysteries of the night sky, the blending of past and present, the ambiguity of identity, the way we tell ourselves yarns to get at larger truths. But I can only sit in the dark listening to horrid little voices for so long before wanting to run screaming out of the theater. Both plays (at least in earnest but flat productions) felt overwritten, victimized by a precious self-indulgence that sorely tries the audience’s patience. Washburn is a promising dramatist; I admire the Lyric’s Stage’s choice to bring her first play to Boston. Let’s hope in the future she finds a more satisfying (and economical) way to express what could be a distinctive dramatic imagination.